Case without a Corpse
Strangely enough, Sergeant Beef seemed elated by the interview.
“Looks to me,” he chuckled, “as though I was right about this, and they was wrong.” Beef’s “they” always meant his superiors. “This isn’t going to be no easy case, after all. We’ve got the murderer, I admit. But that’s not everythink. We’ve got to find the murder. It’s the cart before the ’orse, as you might say.”
He was marching along briskly, and our direction was towards Braxham High Street. I did not feel nearly so comfortable about his coming interview with the old couple, for his bludgeoning way of asking questions might hurt them more than he knew. But it was from them that we should probably find out most of “young Rogers’” movements yesterday, and hence make progress.
The shop was closed, and Beef knocked heavily on the door. In a few moments old Rogers stood before us.
“Go easy with Mrs. Rogers, Sergeant,” he whispered. “She’s taken it very much to heart.”
Beef nodded, and all three of us entered a little room behind the shop, where the old lady, who had been so cheerful that morning in the train, sat over the fire with a miserable remnant of wet handkerchief in her hand. Her eyes were swollen with crying.
“Mother thought the world of young Alan,” said Mr. Rogers. “She can’t believe it of him—not in cold blood, anyway.”
She turned towards us. Her voice was shaky, but she seemed to want to express something that she meant very sincerely.
“If there’s anything I can tell you that will help to clear this up,” she said, “I’ll be only too glad. I’m sure when you get to the bottom of it, you’ll find our boy only did whatever he has done in self-defence. It couldn’t be otherwise.”
“Well, first of all I should like to ask you a few questions about yourself, Mrs. Rogers,” said Beef unexpectedly. “See, if I’ve got these notes I took when Mr. Rogers was anxious about you last night, and I’d like to complete them, as it were. You went up to London yesterday, I ’ear?”
“Yes. On the 11.20.”
“You took a day return?”
“Meaning to come back last night?”
“Yes. But then I met Mrs. Fairfax in the train. . . .”
“Fairfax?” asked Beef, “I seem to know that name. Come from ’ere, does she?”
“Well, she stays down here with her husband now and again.”
Beef was beginning his slow scrawl. “What, the gentleman as comes for the fishing? Where do they stay?”
“At the Riverside Private Hotel,” said Mrs. Rogers. “He comes down often. But they live in London.”
“I see. And you met her in the train. Was she alone?”
“Yes. Her husband was staying on a few days. In the train she suggested that it would be rather a lark for us to go to a theatre last night, and me to stay at their house in Hammersmith. I can’t think what made me do it. But at the time there didn’t seem anything wrong. I remember she said that it wasn’t often we old ones get out on our own. And I used to like a bit of fun. She said we’d go to the Palladium then to the Corner House for supper. I was quite excited about it. So I sent Alf that telegram you saw and off we went.”
After the necessary moments of laborious note-taking, Sergeant Beef said, “Why was you going up to London at all that day, Mrs. Rogers?”
“Well, we always liked to. . . .” Suddenly her pleasant round face was turned away from us, and there were a few moments of embarrassed silence. Then she resumed. “We always gave Alan some little present when he had his leave. And this time we wanted it to be something special. I was going up to get it for him. I always say you can’t get anything in the shops here.”
“I see. But when you sent your telegram to Mr. Rogers, why didn’t you say ’oo you was staying with? It wouldn’t ’ave cost no more to’ve said, ‘staying with Fairfaxes’ than ‘staying with friends.’ ”
Mrs. Rogers said in a quiet voice that made one think she would have smiled then if she could, “Well, to tell you the truth it was a sort of family joke with us that Mr. Rogers never cared for Mr. Fairfax. And I think Mrs. Fairfax knew that, because she suggested not mentioning names. She said that if Mr. Rogers knew he might go round to see Mr. Fairfax about it, and that wouldn’t do.”
“Well, thank you, Mrs. Rogers. That settles your part of yesterday.” He sucked his moustache. “’Oo’s nephew was ’e by rights, yours or Mr. Rogers’s?”
The old lady glanced at her husband. “Well, he wasn’t either of our nephews, exactly,” she said. “Sort of adopted nephew.”
“No relation at all?”
“No. Not to say relation.”
“’Ow long ago did you take ’im on?”
“About seven years ago. You tell them, Alf.”
She turned to the fire again, and her husband cleared his throat.
“There’s not really much to tell,” he said. “He came to my shop one day when we was in Bromley, and asked for work. Mother was out at the time, and I gave him something to eat, and he stayed talking. He was in a bad way—down and out. I took rather a fancy to the lad. We’ve never had any children of our own, you see. And when mother came home she liked him, too. So he stayed on for a day or two. And one thing led to another, and he’s stayed with us ever since. But of course he was always anxious to get work. And after a bit he went back to his old line—steward on the ships.”
“What was his real name, then?”
“We never knew. And as he didn’t like talking about his past before he came to us, we never pressed him to find out. All he told us was that he’d been a steward before, and got into some trouble. He was a lad for trouble, you see, but nothing serious.”
Beef’s pencil scratched painfully on.
“Now this time ’ome,” he said at last, “he didn’t be’ave unusual?”
“No. Not that we noticed.”
“Did he receive any letters?”
“One. From a girl, he said. Oh, and he did say when he saw the envelope that he thought he’d done with that.”
“It was waiting for ’im when ’e got ’ome?”
“No. Not that we saw.”
“’E didn’t say anything unusual?”
“No. He was on about his young lady. He was engaged to Molly Cutler, you know.”
“Yes, I know. ’E never said nothink about being followed?”
“Followed?” said Mr. Rogers. “No. Nothing at all.”
“And about this walking out with Miss Cutler. You approved, did you?”
Mrs. Rogers answered at once. “Of course we did. A really nice young lady. We were very pleased. Why, his uncle wanted him to get married at once, didn’t you, Alf? Mr. Rogers said if he liked to get married and not go back to sea, he’d help him set up in business. But he wouldn’t hear of it. He said he had had quite enough from us. He wanted to save enough money on his own. He got good money at sea.”
“You advised ’im to throw it up then, Mr. Rogers?”
“Well, I thought it was time he settled down.
“I see. Well, what did ’e do ’is first day ’ome?”
“He was messing about with his motor-bike most of the day. He nearly always takes it half to pieces every time he comes.”
“Did ’e see anyone?”
“He went out in the evening—to meet his young lady.”
“No one else?”
“Not that we know of.”
“He was gone from here at ten o’clock on his bike.”
“Say where ’e was going?”
“No. ’E never mentioned anything like that. He did not like it if we asked him too many questions about his movements. That was his way.”
“I see. When did you see him again?”
“Well, I’ve told you all that. Do you want me to go over it again in front of mother?”
Sergeant Beef turned back several pages of his notebook. “No. I don’t think that’s necessary. I see I’ve got your information about his return. It was about eight o’clock, you said?”
“Somewhere about then.”
“What time do you shut the shop?”
“Between six and half-past.”
“And you stayed in after that?”
“Oh no. I always have my walk after I’ve shut up. I go up as far as the Memorial every night.”
“I see. What time do you get back, then?”
“It depends. Soon after seven, usually.”
“Had your nephew got a key?”
“So that it would have been possible for ’im to’ve come in and gone out again while you was ’aving your walk?”
“I suppose it would. I never thought of that.”
“When ’e come in at eight o’clock, was ’e on ’is motor-bike?”
“I really can’t remember. I didn’t notice. To tell you the truth I was having forty winks when he came in.”
“You said last night he was wearing his motor-biking things, though?”
“Yes. That’s right.”
“Oh. You never ’eard the bike?” “Not as far as I can remember.”
“’Ow did you first know it was back in the shed in your yard, then?”
“The constable went to look, when he came round last night.”
“Thank you, Mr. Rogers. And now I should like to ’ave a look at ’is things.”
Mrs. Rogers rose wearily to her feet. “I’ll take you up,” she said.
“No, mother, you stay by the fire,” said her husband. “I’ll go upstairs with the Sergeant.”
But she shook her head. “I shouldn’t like anyone to be touching Alan’s things unless I were there,” she said, and began to lead the way.
The dead man’s bedroom was at the back of the little house, over the room in which we had been sitting. It was cold and rather cheerless this February afternoon, and had the slightly stuffy air of most cottage bedrooms. There was an iron bedstead, a dressing-table with another photo of Molly Cutler on it, and a trunk. Beef eyed the latter.
“’Fraid I shall ’ave to ’ave a look,” he said, and opened the lid.
Young Rogers’s belongings were so ordinary that they were soon examined. Suits, shirts, oddments of clothing, an electric torch, a camera, shoes, writing materials (but no letters), hairbrushes, and his steward’s uniform.
“’E didn’t seem to bring ’ome much from abroad,” Beef reflected.
“Well, there was the Customs,” said Mrs. Rogers.
“He never seemed to think it worth while,” said her husband. “He said things were dearer out there than what they are here.”
“I daresay,” said Beef. “It’s often the way.”
He paused for a final look round the room and noticed, hanging near the door, a suit of overalls. They were dark blue in colour, and seemed to be almost new. There was not a sign of dirt or grease on them anywhere.
“Nice clean overalls,” Sergeant Beef reflected.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Rogers. “He never used them, you see. His uncle bought them for him over at Claydon a week or so back, didn’t you, Dad? But he was silly about them, and bought them too small. We we’re laughing about them when Alan first got home. He was going to wear them to do his bike, but he couldn’t get them on.”
Beef fingered them for a minute. “Oh,” he said.
Slowly we all went downstairs.
“I think that’s all I need ask you for the moment,” he said, “I’m sorry to ’ave ’ad to do it when you was both upset. But these things ’ave to be done. I’m sure if you think of anything else that might be useful you’ll let me know.”
“We’d like it all to be sifted out, Sergeant,” said Mrs. Rogers. But it was plain that she was anxious for us to leave her alone, and I was relieved when I saw Beef making for the street. This had been the most trying half-hour I had faced with him.